Ben Jonson


Herford & Simpson

Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson, I1 vols (Oxford, 1925-52).

Ben Jonson's 4to edition (1640)

Ben: Ionson's Execration against Vulcan. With divers epigrams by the same Author…Printed by J. O. for John Berison (London, 1640).

John Benson's 12mo edition (1640)

Q. Horatius Flaccus: His Art of Poetry. Englished by Ben: Jonson. With other Workes of the Author…Printed by J. Okes, for John Benson (London, 1640).


English Song 1600-1675: Facsimiles of Twenty-six Manuscripts and an Edition of the Texts, ed. Elise Bickford Jorgens (New York & London, 1986-89)

Sabol, 400 Songs & Dances

Four Hundred Songs and Dances from the Stuart Masque, ed. Andrew J. Sabol (Providence, Rhode Island, 1978).


Autograph Manuscripts

There are many manuscript texts of works by Jonson, his poems especially, including a number of autograph manuscripts. The complete autograph copy of his Masque of Queens presented to Prince Henry survives (*JnB 685), as does the opening speech in his hand of an entertainment presented before King James and King Christian of Denmark (*JnB 580). Jonson's hand is also probably the first of three cursive hands responsible for the recently discovered Entertainment at Britain's Burse (*JnB 574.2). Altogether nine poems are preserved in his hand: five presentation poems to various patrons or influential friends (*JnB 386, *JnB 504-5, *JnB 512, *JnB 529), a translation of an epigram by Martial given to his friend the actor Edward Alleyn *JnB 319), an epitaph included in a letter to another friend, George Garrard (*JnB 102), and two poems written out for presentation to William Drummond of Hawthornden (*JnB 270, *JnB 352). In addition, a copy of Sir Henry Wotton's poem The Character of a Happy Life among the Alleyn Papers at Dulwich is in Jonson's hand (WoH 2). For an argument presented in favour of Jonson's being the scribe responsible for the Herbert manuscript of Donne's treatise Biathanatos (*DnJ 4054), see Mark Bland, ‘Jonson, Biathanatos, and the Interpretation of Manuscript Evidence’, Studies in Bibliography, 51 (1998), 154-82. Bland's attribution (not helped by the fact that two of the examples of ‘Jonson's’ hand illustrated in his article are certainly not autograph) is not widely accepted.


Besides the letter of 1609 to George Garrard (*JnB 102), three of Jonson's autograph letters are currently known (*JnB 740, *JnB 741, *JnB 743), besides a small number of manuscript copies of other letters by him (*JnB 740, *JnB 741, JnB 753-750).

Printed Books Inscribed by Jonson

A further brief series of autograph items is Jonson's inscriptions in various of his own printed works. There are at least seven recorded exempla of Jonson's Workes (1616) with his presentation inscriptions (*JnB 753-759). A few other extant quartos of individual plays or entertainments by Jonson also bear his presentation inscriptions (*JnB 684.5, *JnB 685.2, *JnB 729.2, *JnB 729.5, *JnB 737.5). In addition, a single leaf, possibly detached from an exemplum of one of Jonson's own works, and with the autograph inscription, ‘To the most noble Mr. William St. Maure. Ben: Jonsons guift. A testimony of obseruance’, is reproduced in the printed catalogue of the R.B. Adam Library (London & New York, 1929), III, after p. 142, later incorporated in the Hyde Collection. One of the presentation exempla of the 1616 Folio possibly already recorded, with an autograph inscription, appears (with illustration) in Henry Sotheran's sale catalogue Bibliotheca Pretiosa (1907), item 277.

Many other printed books (and a few manuscripts) by other authors once owned by Jonson bear his signature (usually ‘Sum Ben: Jonsoni’), motto (‘Tanquam explorator’), inscriptions, or marginal annotations. A checklist of books and manuscripts from Jonson's library is printed in Herford & Simpson, I, 250-71, and XI, 593-603. A more comprehensive catalogue is printed in David McPherson, ‘Ben Jonson's Library and Marginalia: An Annotated Catalogue’, Studies in Philology, 71, No. 5 (December 1974), and various other books of Jonson's have come to light over the years, some of them recorded in IELM, I.ii (1980), p. 234. A new, up-to-date catalogue, compiled by Henry Woudhuysen, is forthcoming in the online version of the new Cambridge Edition of Ben Jonson's Works.


One or two additional examples of Jonson's hand may be mentioned. Jonson seems to have been one of the earliest English poets to leave ‘autographs’ in the modern sense, that is, inscriptions consciously written out as mementos of himself and which his contemporaries evidently requested or valued as such: witness particularly his presentation leaf to William Drummond, ‘to satisfie his request’, with his autograph copies of two poems (*JnB 270, *JnB 352). There are at least two recorded inscriptions of his in contemporary autograph albums or libri amicorum (*JnB 760, *JnB 762), a form of compilation which became fashionable on the Continent in the 16th century. Another kind of inscription, Jonson's epitaph on Robert Jermyn of Rushbrooke (1623), was carved on a monument in St Margaret's, Lothbury, but this church was largely destroyed in the Fire of London (1666). Two early copies of it survive (JnB 763, JnB 764).

There are other documents, of an official, financial or legal nature, that are known to have been signed by Jonson. One, for instance, is an assignment to Nicholas Harman of £20 from Jonson's pension of 100 marks, dated 16 April 1623, which is known, however, only from the copy in the Auditors' Entry Book (Nationbal Archives, Kew, E406/45/37). The very latest recorded signature by him (in the period following his stroke) is on an autograph receipt by him for £40, docketed 12 November 1631. This accompanies Queen Henrietta Maria's signed warrant for this payment, dated 3 November 1631, ‘In consideration of paines taken by him in or service vpon seuerall occasions of Masques, and otherwise’ (National Archives, Kew, LR5/64). These documents are recorded in N.W. Bawcutt, ‘New Jonson Documents’, Review of English Studies, NS 47 (1996), 50-2. An official copy of Henrietta Maria's warrant of 3 November 1631 is also among the household accounts of her Treasurer Sir Richard Wynn, now in the National Library of Wales (Wynnstay MSS 174-186).

Other documents relating to Jonson are recorded in Herford & Simpson, I, 217-49, and by other biographers. Some further items, not all given separate entries below, may be mentioned briefly. Clearly the most informative contemporary account of Jonson is Drummond's conversations with Jonson (DrW 303-304). To this may be added the recently discovered account of a fellow traveller of his, headed ‘My Gossip Joh[n]son his foot voyage and mine into Scotland’, now among the papers of the Aldersey family in the Cheshire Record Office. This is discussed by James Loxley in TLS, 11 September 2009, pp. 13-15. There is also a 34-line poem ‘vpon Ben Iohnsons trauelling a foote into Scotland’ (beginning ‘Thrice worthy Poett of this halfe blest Ile’) among the Hopkinson manuscripts in the Bradford Archives (42D86/34, pp. 119-20). This is edited in Mark Bland, ‘Ben Jonson and the Legacies of the Past’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 67 (2004), 371-400 (p. 397).

Another revealing manuscript is the letter of introduction written for Jonson by Jean Beaulieu, on 3 March 1612/13, and presented by Jonson himself to William Trumbull, English Resident in Brussels. This is among the Trumbull Papers now in the British Library (Add. MS 72250, f. 131r). It was reproduced in facsimile in Sotheby's sale catalogue The Trumbull Papers, 14 December 1989, lot 22,. The irony of this letter becomes evident in the light of Beaulieu's confidential letter a few days later, on 11 March (MS, f. 134r), giving Trumbull his real opinion of Jonson.

Dramatic Works

After the principal autograph manuscripts by Jonson, the most important manuscripts of his works are contemporary scribal copies of the complete text of various masques and entertainments. Eleven such copies are known (JnB 563, JnB 574, *JnB 574.2, JnB 575, JnB 676-576.5, JnB 577, JnB 578, JnB 611, JnB 612, JnB 676, JnB 680, *JnB 683, JnB 691), and there also survives a French version of the Entertainment of the King and Queen at Theobalds in 1607 which was presumably made for the use of the distinguished French spectators (JnB 577). Although all the texts represented in these copies are probably close to the author's own manuscripts, only one is known for certain to have been handled by Jonson himself: namely, the copy of The Masque of Blackness which he signed and presented to Queen Anne (*JnB 683). What would have been a scribal copy of comparable authority of another entertainment, the Panegyre on the King's Opening of Parliament, which Jonson presented to King James, is no longer to be found among the Royal MSS except for the detached title-leaf (JnB 690).

Four of the copies of entertainments (JnB 574, JnB 611, JnB 676, JnB 680) belong to the single most important collection of Jonson's works in manuscript, now in the British Library (Harley MS 4955) and generally known as the ‘Newcastle MS’. This formal anthology, largely devoted to Jonson, Donne and Richard Andrews, was compiled during the 1620s and 1630s, perhaps principally for Sir William Cavendish (1592-1676), first Earl and later Duke of Newcastle, who was one of Jonson's patrons. Besides the four entertainments, it includes copies of some letters by Jonson (JnB 747-750), of extracts from three other masques (JnB 564, JnB 606, JnB 735), and of 29 of Jonson's poems (recorded in the entries below). An important discussion of this volume, in which the principal scribe is identified as John Rolleston and the substantial body of verse here by Richard Andrews is defined, appears in Hilton Kelliher, ‘Donne, Jonson, Richard Andrews and The Newcastle Manuscript’, English Manuscript Studies, 4 (1993), 134-74, with facsimile examples.

The number of surviving manuscript copies of Jonson's masques reflects the value which Court circles, and Jonson himself, evidently attached to these productions. A complementary survival of manuscripts is that of the original costume and scenic designs for masques, including Jonson's, made by Inigo Jones, preserved among the collections of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth House. They are extensively catalogued, with numerous illustrations, in Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong, Inigo Jones: The Theatre of the Stuart Court, 2 vols (Sotheby Parke Bernet, University of California Press, 1973). No special conditions favoured the survival of manuscripts of Jonson's plays written for the public stage, however. The plays are largely represented here by various extracts, probably derived from printed texts, in miscellanies, and by some early copies of the songs. The latter are of some interest because a number of the songs introduced in Jonson's plays (and masques) clearly circulated in manuscripts as independent pieces, sometimes before they were revised for publication. Moreover, certain manuscript copies preserve contemporary musical settings. Various other musical pieces preserved in manuscripts may belong to particular dances in Jonson's masques: see Sabol, 400 Songs & Dances, passim.


There are numerous copies of Jonson's poems in miscellanies and other manuscript sources. Those texts often represent early versions which circulated in manuscript before being revised for publication. In one case, the Meisei MS copy of A Satyricall Shrub supplies the only known complete text of that poem (JnB 428.5), which was otherwise printed in the 1640 Folio with two lines of asterisks headed ‘Here something is wanting’. Jonson established his definitive text of the Epigrammes and The Forrest in the First Folio of his Workes (1616), which he personally supervised, but he never completed a second collected edition. The Second Folio of his Workes, including The Vnder-wood, was edited after his death by Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-65) and by the printer Thomas Walkley and was published in 1640-41 (the title-page is dated 1640). Digby and Walkley allegedly worked from Jonson's ‘true & perfect Copies’; this was as opposed to John Benson's ‘pirated’ quarto and duodecimal editions of Jonson's poems, which were printed in 1640 from ‘false & imperfect Copies’ (see Herford & Simpson, IX, 98). Nonetheless, certain of the texts (e.g. Nos. xx and lxxxiv of The Vnder-wood) were evidently imperfect and at least three poems by other authors (Nos. xxxix, lxxx, and lxxxi) were included by mistake. Manuscript copies of poems in The Vnder-wood are arguably of textual importance in providing useful checks against the readings of the Second Folio. The early versions of the poems which they sometimes preserve are those which were, in fact, most widely known to Jonson's own contemporaries.

Among the more notable of the miscellaneous manuscript sources are copies of certain poems owned by Sir Kenelm Digby himself. However, they clearly had no connection with the manuscripts Jonson bequeathed to him and which, after being sold to Walkley for printing, suffered the usual fate of printers' manuscripts and have disappeared without trace. What was described by a later owner, Henry Bright, as ‘a small packet of old discoloured papers’ containing 19 poems by various authors (six in Digby's hand) included three poems by Jonson (JnB 193, JnB 226, JnB 307), two relating to Digby's wife, Venetia Stanley. This collection cannot now be traced, though the texts were fortunately printed by Bright in 1877. Another unlocated miscellany reported to have contained poems by Jonson, a duodecimo manuscript volume of poems by Jonson, Strode, Corbett et al. compiled by Jeremie Baines (fl.1639-51) of Hampshire, was formerly owned by the Rev. T.M. Webb of Hardwick Vicarage, Herefordshire, and was last recorded in HMC, 7th Report, Part I (1879), Appendix, p. 691. A particularly important text which has come to light, however, is the copy of Jonson's epitaph on Vincent Corbett, along with those by Richard Corbett and John Selden, which appears on what is evidently the original funerary placard for Vincent Corbett in 1619, a large membrane of vellum now in the Osborn Collection at Yale (JnB 142.5). This manuscript also recalls what is evidently a sketch for, or copy of, the original memorial containing Jonson's Epitaph on Katherine, Lady Ogle in 1629 now in the Newcastle MS (JnB 137).

The Canon

The canon of Jonson's verse accepted here is based entirely on Herford & Simpson and excludes what is regarded in that edition as the Jonson apocrypha (VIII, 424-52) as well as other verses which can be found ascribed to Jonson in manuscript sources. At Harvard, for instance (Autograph file), is a late-seventeenth-century copy of a poem which is alleged to have been copied from his holograph: the poem Written by Ben: Jonson under Sir Ben: Rudyards Picture, beginning ‘Could we (as here this figure) see his Mind’. Also, in a large folio miscellany compiled by Mildmay Fane (1601-66), second Earl of Westmorland, privately owned by the Fane family (but on loan in the British Library), appears (p. 28) the distich ‘Stand foot stand my foot, least slipping thou'rt misled / Stand fast or else these stones may prove thy bed’, also rendered in Latin and headed ‘Ben: Johnson Drunk’. This is at least of some interest in that Fane was a known associate of Jonson. Among other things, Fane copied out two poems on Jonson in his exemplum of the 1616 folio Workes (now at Yale, (1977 + 422) — namely, ‘Why do we stile those works wch are but playes’ (on the upper paste-down) and ‘He who began from Dirt & Lime’ (on sig. 4Q4r) — as well as some of Jonson's epigrams (to replace ‘missing’ pages 797-800) possibly from a printer's copy (see JnB 316.5, JnB 406.5, JnB 410.5, JnB 498.5, JnB 499.5, JnB 511.5, JnB 517.5, JnB 548.5, and JnB 554.5). Fane was also once owner of Jonson's annotated exemplum of Samuel Daniel's Works (Yale, Ig D226 B602b, copy 3): cited in Mark Bland, ‘William Stansby and the Production of The Workes of Beniamin Jonson, 1615-16’, The Library, 6th Ser. 20 (1998), 1-33 (p. 22).

A case might also be made, though not conclusively, for an epigram on Richard Burbage (beginning ‘Tell me who can when a player dies’) which is ascribed to Jonson (‘EpI: B: Jo:’) in the Burley Manuscript, compiled largely by William Parkhurst, now in the Leicestershire Record Office (DG. 7/Lit. 2, f. 256v). This was first published in Grierson's edition of Donne's poems (1912), I, 443. See Brandon S. Centerwall, ‘“Tell Me Who Can When a Player Dies”: Ben Jonson's Epigram on Richard Burbage, and How It Was Lost to the Canon’, Ben Jonson Journal, 4 (1997), 27-34. There is also a variant version of what was clearly the most widely circulated of Jonson's poems, The Houre-glasse (JnB 270-307), a version, beginning ‘This dust y' quite runs out to runne againe’. This poem, which was edited in Herford & Simpson (XI, 53) from a manuscript in the British Library (Add. MS 30982, f. 57r) is, in fact, a quite independent and anonymous translation of the original Latin poem by Girolamo Amaltei. (Other manuscript copies of it include Aberdeen University Library, MS 29, p. 178, and British Library, Sloane MS 1446, f. 26v).

As with Donne, however, Jonson's popularity seems, for the most part, to have led to his name being uncritically linked with a variety of contemporary verses, not only with poems written in his style, but also with assorted trivial jokes and pieces of doggerel — a number of these being collected in Herford & Simpson, VIII, Appendix XVI, pp. 424-52. Of these verses, the most popular was evidently On the Good Wives Ale (beginning ‘When shall wee meete againe and have a tast’), edited in Herford & Simpson, VIII, 448-9. Numerous early manuscript copies of this poem survive, variously attributed to Jonson, to Sir Thomas Jay, and to Thomas Randolph: see RnT 503-525.

Jonson was likewise the subject of many seventeenth-century anecdotes, usually concerning witty things he is supposed to have said on various occasions; some of these are cited in Herford & Simpson, in J.F. Bradley and J.Q. Adams, The Jonson Allusion-Book (New Haven, 1922), and in Hilton Kelliher, ‘Anecdotes of Jonson and Cleveland’, N&Q, 217 (May 1972), 172-3. The frequency with which some of these anecdotes about Jonson occur suggest that at least certain of them have their basis in fact. For instance, the verse on Noye the Attorney (‘When the world was drown'd’) is cited in Herford & Simpson (VIII, 447) from a copy in a notebook of Thomas Plume (1630-1704), but an earlier version, claiming that Jonson composed the verses in a tavern in Chancery Lane, is to be found in a notebook of Sir Richard Dyott, M.P. (1590-1659), now in the Staffordshire Record Office (D. 661/11 /1 / 7, p. 54). Dyott's source is cited as ‘Mr James Povey’. (Another copy is in Bodleian, MS Don. e. 176, p. 135).

Lost or Unfinished Works

Drummond's account of his conversation with Jonson is also the only evidence of a number of presumably genuine works which Jonson had written (for instance, ‘a discourse of Poesic both against Campion & Daniel’) and of certain works which, in 1618, he intended to write (such as ‘ane Epick Poeme jntitled Heroologia of the Worthies of his Country’), but of which no texts are known. Some other lost works can be inferred from references in certain of Jonson's poems: see William Dinsmore Briggs, ‘Studies in Ben Jonson. IV’, Anglia, 39 (1916), 209-52 (p. 219 et seq.). Then there are the numerous references to Jonson in Philip Henslowe's ‘Diary’ at Dulwich College (MS 7) and to plays he was supposed to have been writing, wholely or in part, for Henslowe in 1597-1602, largely in collaboration with Chettle, Dekker and others. These include ‘a Boocke called hoote anger’, ‘pegge of plemoth’, ‘Robart the second Kinge of scottes tragedie’, and ‘Richard Crockbacke’ [i.e. Richard III], as well as new ‘adicyons for Jeronymo’ [i.e. ?Kyd's Spanish Tragedy].

Exempla of Jonson's Works with Early Readers' Annotations

Various exempla of Jonson's printed works bear annotations by seventeenth-century readers, but are not included in the entries below. For the annotations in an exemplum of the Workes (1616), formerly owned by James A. Riddell and now in the Huntington, see his ‘Seventeenth-Century Identifications of Jonsons Sources in the Classics’, Renaissance Quarterly, 28 (1975), 204-18. Another exemplum owned by Riddell and now likewise in the Huntington, was copiously annotated in 1698 by Abiel Borfet (1632/3-1710) of Christ's College, Cambridge. This was sold at Sotheby's on 18 December 1985, lot 38. For annotations made by Charles Stanhope, second Lord Stanhope (1593-1675), in an exemplum of the Workes (1640) now at Yale (Osborn pb 30), see James M. Osborn, ‘Ben Jonson and the Eccentric Lord Stanhope’, TLS (4 January 1957), p. 16. For William Drummond's annotated exemplum of the Workes (1616), see *DrW 351. Yet other exempla of the 1616 Folio include one once owned by Lady Elizabeth Denbigh, sold at Sotheby's, 19 May 1952, lot 49, to Quaritch; another apparently from the library of Joseph Addison, with extensive pencil marginalia in an eighteenth-century hand, sold at Sotheby's on 29 June 1982, lot 495 to Quaritch; and an exemplum of Ben: Ionson's Execration against Vulcan (London, 1640 [i.e. 1639]) once owned by Constantijn Huygens the poet and later in the library at Traquair House, which was sold at Sotheby's, New York, 30 April 1990 (H. Bradley Martin sale), lot 2961.

Peter Beal